Charles Perkins: Footballer, activist, administrator
(This article appeared in Goal Weekly on 23 December 2011, p. 19.)
Charles Perkins was a pioneering figure in the recognition of the Aboriginal people of Australia. In the 1960s he led the freedom rides which brought discrimination against Aborigines into Australian politics. He was the first male Aboriginal graduate of the University of Sydney. He became chair of the Aboriginal Development Commission and head of the Federal Government’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs. For four decades he was one of the most recognised figures across a range of issues affecting the indigenous peoples of Australia. Yet it was football where he first made his name and football which set him on the way to his later achievements. As he said ‘Football serves a three-fold purpose. The first was to provide me with finance for my study. Second, it enabled me to keep fit because I needed to study for such long hours., Third, it was the means whereby I could mix socially and enjoy myself comfortably.’
Born in 1936 near Alice Springs. His mother was of the Arunta people, a very inclusive group, and his father whom he only saw once, was of the Kalkadoon people from Mount Isa. Charles was taken to Adelaide at the age of ten along with several other children by a Church of England pastor. Among the Aboriginal children in the school at Marryatville was John Moriarty, another who made his way through football to an important career in Australian life. Life was very tough for the youngsters who had to cope with discrimination and abuse. In 1951 the state Under-18 was practising near the school. The boys from St Francis’s took them on and gave them the runaround. Perkins and Moriarty and some of the others joined the squad soon after. That started the love affair with football.
Charles Perkins rose through a number of junior clubs in Adelaide including Port Thistle juniors, International United (Redskins), and Budapest which he joined in 1956. His speed, power and ferocious shooting skills were recognised and in 1957 when he was at Fiorentina a scout from Everton offered to pay half his fare for a trial with the club in England. Like other young Australians, including Craig Johnston and Tony Dorigo, Perkins found the gulf between the football he had been used to in Australia and that in United Kingdom was huge. Though he tried hard he could not break into the Everton team and though he was offered a part-time contract in the end, he decided instead to try his luck elsewhere. He had a spell with local team in Wigan and then joined Bishop Auckland. On the face of it this was a curious move, going from a top professional team to an amateur one, but as he pointed out the amateur players were getting just as much money at the professionals in those days of the maximum wage in England. A game against Oxford University opened his mind to the possibility of going to university himself one day. In the short run he turned down offers in England, including one from Manchester United, and returned to Australia.
Adelaide Croatia, presided over by the leading housebuilder, Branko Fillipi, agreed to pay his fare home as they wanted his drive and direction for their push for promotion. Within months of coming home, he was helping the club to win promotion and cups as player-coach and becoming vice-captain of the South Australian state team. His experience in England had sharpened his skills including his tactical awareness and organisational capacity. John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe were two other Aboriginal members of the Croatia team in these years. Meeting the future premier of South Australia Don Dunstan helped to develop his interest in the politics of Aboriginal advancement and in 1961 he moved to Sydney. After a false start at Bankstown he was offered a contract at Pan Hellenic, where he was an immediate hit. Once he settled among the Greek community he combined success on the football field with study for matriculation and then at Sydney University. Under his leadership Pan Hellenic finished fourth in Division One in New South Wales in 1961 and 1963. He finished his career as a player at Bankstown in 1965, but he remained involved in the game off the field.
When the National Soccer League started he was president of Canberra City and became a member of the Australian Soccer Federation and its vice-president in 1987. He also helped promote the indoor game in Canberra along with his long time friend Johnny Warren and was president of the Australian Indoor Soccer Federation for a decade. He never forgot what he owed to the game and his autobiography A Bastard like Me tells the story, warts and all. His influence persisted long after he died in 2000, because he paved the way by his example for the next generation of talent to come through. Harry Williams worked closely with Perkins in Aboriginal support services in Rockdale in Sydney and went on to play for Australia in the World Cup in Germany in 1974. The modern generation of Aboriginal players, men and women, owe a great deal to the pioneering career of Charles Perkins.